Course Content
Chapter 3: Writing Mechanics Help
Chapter 12: Teaching Writing
Chapter 23: Teaching Reading
College English Composition: Help and Review
About Lesson

You Can’t Judge a Book by Its Cover

When looking at a room of kindergarteners, can you tell right away which ones will be talented readers? Will one of them become the next Neil Simon? Or will that one, the one with her shirt on backwards, go on to struggle through each grade, falling behind more and more as time goes on? You probably can’t tell which ones need extra help just by looking at them. It’s important to identify the less-proficient readers early, when intervention can make the most difference. How do you tell which ones need a boost?

Educators have been grappling with this question for a long time. In the 1980s, researchers at the University of Oregon – Dr. Roland Good and Dr. Ruth Kaminski, who went on to found the Dynamic Measurement Group – developed a set of measures based off of earlier work done at the University of Minnesota. DIBELS are the result of that work.


The Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills, or DIBELS, are short tests that show a student’s progress towards reading from kindergarten through sixth grade. The various measures have been shown to accurately predict reading proficiency. Most of the tests take only a couple minutes. The measures gauge whether the student is developing various literacy skills such as phonemic awareness, fluency and comprehension.

Nonsense Word Fluency

One of these DIBELS measures is nonsense word fluency. In short, nonsense word fluency assesses alphabetic principle skills and phonics. It tests the student’s understanding of letter-sound correspondences and their ability to sound out and read unfamiliar words.

For the test, the teacher hands the student a list of two- and three-letter ‘words’ that have no correlating meaning (like gan, fon, og, hig, etc.). The two-letter words are made up of a vowel and consonant; the three-letter words are consonant-vowel-consonant.

The person administering the test asks the student to read as many of them aloud as he or she can and times the test at one minute. The student gets credit for a word if he or she can make the sounds of the individual letters or simply read the word. If the student sounds the word out, they get a lower score than if they simply read the word, since it is a test of fluency.

The Dynamic Measurement Group recommends that the nonsense word fluency test be administered from mid-kindergarten through the beginning of second grade. Testing students on nonsense word fluency is a good way to determine which students will need more individualized attention in reading. It also aligns with the Common Core standards in English Language Arts. Nonsense word fluency gauges a student’s phonological awareness and ability to decode single-syllable words, a benchmark for first graders.

Lesson Summary

It is important to identify students who are struggling with literacy early on. The DIBELS are quick assessments of a child’s growing literacy. One of these assessments is nonsense word fluency, or the ability to sound out and read aloud two- and three-letter ‘words’ that have no meaning. Nonsense word fluency indicates the student’s comprehension of letter-sound correspondence and skill in reading unfamiliar words. It is a good predictor of future reading fluency.

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